Alchemy on the banks of the Cam

April 4, 2013

This is a tale of alchemy practised in Cambridge’s sylvan groves of academe, but first, let me take you to a nearby pub on the banks of the River Cam. In a corner of a bar stands a former soldier who is now an MP, who is with the Chef de Mission for the UK London 2012 Paralympic team, and they are listening to a young lawyer talking about their challenges having newly arrived at a global bank. In another corner, a judge and the President-elect of the Scottish Law Society are listening to another lawyer who is working as a sole lawyer in her first in-house job. Two more lawyers new to in-house life are chatting with a general counsel about their experiences.

But away from alcohol and back to alchemy. The transition from private practice lawyer to successful in-house lawyer can be a very challenging one. Our colleagues don’t understand us; they compare us with the external lawyers they work with; we struggle with the impossible situations we get put in; and we never quite get around to planning our careers – plus a host of other challenges some specific to us and our organisations and some more general. When I started my in-house journey more than 20 years ago I was lucky to have as my first boss someone who understood some of these things and gave me some guidance in addressing them; some of the other answers came to me over the following years; others remain work in progress.

It would have been great to have had access to resources that would have helped me get to grips with these issues at the start of my in-house career. So my participation as a Wise Owl in the recent LBCambridge event for in-house lawyers gave rise to some rueful reflection on what might have been, as well as excitement at what might yet be, for me personally as well as the delegates and other participants in the event.

The aim of the LBCambridge event – to help equip in-house lawyers (especially those whose time in-house has been relatively short) with some of the non-legal skills which operating in-house requires – is unusual but not unique. The way in which it sets about it, so far as I can tell, is unique. And the experience which delegates and other participants alike undergo is certainly unique in my experience.

Starting on a Sunday evening, what seems like a week’s worth of ideas, discussion, presentation and formation of long-term relationships are packed into two and half Tardis-like days. More alchemy. The concept is simple; the talent, experience and insights of the delegates themselves are immense resources, so these should be discovered and nourished over the course of the event. The discovery and nourishment process is enabled by LBC Wise Counsel’s CEO, Paul Gilbert, playing the role of alchemist-in-chief, always making the most of his considerable knowledge and thought as a former GC and now legal management consultant. Inviting trouble, or so it seemed, he invited the tables to come up with their most knotty issues for him to address in the morning.

Time for metaphorical refreshment – so back to the pub. As well as providing a practical place for liquid refreshment each evening during the event, it provides a place where delegates can meet the presenters and Wise Owls on equal terms – creating an ease of dialogue between them which then infuses the event itself. The Wise Owls – among them the judge and the President-elect of the Scottish Law Society as well as others including me – play a facilitative role in the group discussions which take place throughout the event. In this they are joined by representatives of Irwin Mitchell, Riverview Law and Lexis Nexis, all of whom help to make the event possible but use their presence at the event to share wisdom rather than seeking business. Having the Wise Owls involved helps to ensure that the debate on each table involves all participants as well as providing opportunities for delegates to meet and discuss issues with senior lawyers outside their organisation – both during the event and afterwards.

The course of the event is shaped by various interventions from presenters which then inform the ensuing table discussions. These include the former soldier and the Chef de Mission. The former soldier is Col. Bob Stewart whose description of his time leading the UN forces in early 1990s Bosnia is a harrowing account of the best and worst of humanity – but also an account of how planning strategies learned in the classrooms of Sandhurst helped him tackle the complex problems he faced there and in other theatres, and how these strategies can be used in the workplace. The Paralympic Chef de Mission, Craig Hunter, also led the England Commonwealth team in Delhi – relating the challenges he faced personally and as a leader and the techniques he used to face up to both categories. In addition contributions are made by Nick Hardie (FTSE 100 CFO on how to read financial statements as a narrative), David Amos (from a boutique executive search company, on operating in the boardroom and how to manage your career choices) and Charles Grimes (a team and personal development coach, who led a highly interactive review of how different styles of operation and influence all contribute to successful teams, but at the same time how those differences create tension and misunderstanding if not recognised and valued).

All of these contributions are shaped by Paul Gilbert, whose deep experience in the legal sector acts as a cohesive influence on the whole proceedings. And somehow – order out of chaos in the alchemist’s laboratory – he takes the different issues from Sunday evening and first thing on Monday morning presents a fluent, structured, deep-diving set of insights on each one; an hour of thought leadership worth the fee alone.

The end of these exhausting days sees something akin to a community of the unfairly advantaged emerge among the delegates, Wise Owls, sponsors and presenters. I’ve yet to meet anyone from any section of this community who Didn’t feel empowered by the experience of LBCambridge, but perhaps the greatest achievement which the event makes is to do so not by adding anything specific to the delegates’ talents, but by giving them the wherewithal to find those talents within themselves. Something which mere alchemy can’t achieve.

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